How Psychological Flexibility is Cultivated Through Mindfulness

By Benjamin Schoendorff, Contextual Psychology Institute

I was first introduced to formal meditation practice in a Zen dojo in 1994. At the time, my life was chaotic and it would remain so for another 10 years. On several occasions over these ten years, I tried to build a regular meditation practice. Although I never managed more than meditating intermittently, I have no doubt that what little practice I did manage helped me. It helped me by giving me a direct experience of distancing from my thoughts. I had previously experienced what I thought as being a part of my essence, as what was defining me, and thus of the utmost importance.

Through meditation I experienced that my thoughts came and went. They were more like clouds in the sky of my consciousness than what defined that sky. The second thing I experienced was closely related. It was a sense that I was more than my thoughts and emotions, more than my experiences. That there was a part of me that was not affected by my experiences, that remained an observer no matter how painful the feelings of the moment or hooky the thoughts.

When I started getting my life in order and, after a brief course of psychotherapy, decided to make myself useful by becoming a therapist, I made a commitment to being guided by science and to somehow integrate my meditation experience into my work. I naturally gravitated toward behavioural therapies, due to the strong empirical support they enjoyed and their commitment to a scientific approach to the alleviation of human suffering. I just as naturally became interested in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy which, was then gathering its first research data supporting its possible effectiveness for depressive relapse. However, try as I might I simply could not build a daily mindfulness practice. I felt uneasy recommending it to my clients. I suspected many would, like me, not be able to engage in daily mindfulness practice.

In February 2007, I came across Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an emerging mindfulness and acceptance-based approach that seeks to help people develop their psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is the ability, in contact with everything that shows up in the moment, to choose and do actions to move toward one’s values, who and what matters most.

In dozens of studies, psychological flexibility has been linked both to positive life functioning and life satisfaction and to a reduction in suffering associated with depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship difficulties and a host of other disorders. The way ACT seeks to train psychological flexibility is by cultivating mindfulness, distancing from unhelpful thought patterns, acceptance of unwanted feelings, identification of one’s values and moving toward them through deliberate actions. You could say it uses mindfulness skills to get folks to behave like the person they want to be.

And here was the catch for me. The person I want to be builds a regular mindfulness practice, but couldn’t. That fed my interest in ACT which seeks to train mindfulness skills even absent a formal mindfulness practice. ACT sees mindfulness as composed of four main elements: the ability to distance from thoughts (a.k.a cognitive defusion), the willingness to experience whatever is present (a.k.a. acceptance), the ability to be present to whatever arises in the moment (a.k.a. contact with the present moment) and, finally, the ability to contact an experience of self as an observer of all experience and transient thoughts, emotions and behavior (a.k.a. self-as context). In ACT these can be trained as discrete processes that together promote the ability to move toward one’s values. One of the most effective ways to do this is through using the ACT Matrix, a simple diagram with two intersecting lines that create four quadrants. The upper left-hand side represents actions to move away from unwanted inner experience (bottom left) and the right-hand side actions (top right) to move toward whom or what is important (values, bottom left). Sorting our behaviours and experiences in these four quadrants gradually helps build our psychological flexibility.

In my case, it has helped me gradually build a daily mindfulness practice that I have been able to keep up for over four months now. I was greatly helped by joining the Numinus team in the Mindful in May challenges for the past two years. Central to the ACT model and standing as a testament to its flexibility is the fact that ACT processes are based in mindfulness, while ACT can also, as was the case for me, help with engaging in more regular mindfulness practice. This is why I believe that mindfulness-based approaches should continue to dialogue and seek integration.

Reflections on a Silent Retreat

By Sarah Roberts, Assistant Director of Numinus

Insight Meditation Society

Last week, I drove to Barre, Massachusetts with Numinus Clinic director Joe Flanders and Numinus Clinic teacher Julien Lacaille to attend a six-day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). Founded in the 1970s by American Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein, IMS is one of the oldest meditation retreat centres in the West. The centre is housed in a beautiful old mansion, and runs regular retreats dedicated to the cultivation of vipassana (insight) and metta (lovingkindness). Our retreat was run by Kittisaro and Thanissara, Buddhist teachers who live and teach primarily in the US and in South Africa.

Orientation

On Monday evening, we gathered with one hundred retreatants from all over the United States and Canada for our orientation session. We were given a tour of the centre, and each retreatant was assigned a small dorm room (single bed, sink and mirror, wardrobe and chair) and a daily job that would contribute to the functioning of the centre. I was assigned to a team of after-lunch pot-washers; fellow retreatants were assigned various gardening, housekeeping, and food preparation jobs.

Noble Silence

Following the orientation session, Thanissara and Kittisaro rang a bell and Noble Silence was officially in session. Noble Silence simply refers to a commitment to remain silent for a certain extended period; the silence is designed to still our mouths and therefore our minds; making it easier to sit calmly; observe the workings of our minds and bodies; and cultivate perception, clarity, and wisdom.

Retreat Schedule

Starting Tuesday morning, the format of the retreat was as follows: at 5am, a bell-ringer walked through the halls of the dorms, ringing a bell to wake us and call us to gather in the meditation hall at 5:10 for chanting and sitting meditation. I usually took the opportunity to sit outside and enjoy the lightening sky instead, joining the group for the next meditation period at 6am. At 6:30, we ate breakfast. At 8:15am, we reconvened in the meditation hall for alternating periods of sitting meditation and walking meditation until lunch at noon. The afternoon schedule was very similar: alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, until a light dinner (soup with crackers or bread) at 5:30pm. All meals were vegetarian, and each period of sitting, walking, or eating was indicated by bell-ringing.  At any time, retreatants could choose to meditate in the meditation hall, in the dorm rooms, in alternate designated meditation areas, or outside; we were also free at any time to nap, take a walk, have a cup of tea, or otherwise rest or rejuvenate.

Dharma Talks

Every evening, Thanissara or Kittisaro gave a “dharma talk.” The word dharma refers to the underlying order of nature and human life, and to behaviour considered to be in accord with that order. The word is also often used to refer to the entirety of the teachings of the Buddha, and a “dharma talk” simply means a talk on Buddhism by a Buddhist teacher. Kittisaro and Thanissara’s dharma talks were excellent. Some referred to Buddhist teachings that were not familiar to me, but the underlying themes of compassion, acceptance, and non-striving were very familiar from my experience as an MBSR participant and teacher. The teachers were warm, engaging, and funny. In particular, Kittisaro’s description of his early life as an incorrigible striver (Rhodes’ Scholar, wrestling champion, medical student) made us laugh.

Buddhism and MBSR

For me, one of the pleasures of the retreat was hearing Thanissara and Kittisaro teach many of the concepts we teach in our mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, but from their unique perspective. Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept only quite recently popularized and secularized in the West as a tool for physical and emotional health and well-being. Although Western mindfulness teachers are educated in Buddhist principles and cognizant of the roots of mindfulness, the MBSR curriculum is specifically designed to be secular, and does not explicitly refer to Buddhist teachings.  Although the retreat teachers only used the word mindfulness a handful of times during the week, the themes of awareness via body sensations, allowing experience to be as it is, turning toward rather than away from pain, and cultivating compassion for personal and others’ suffering were unmistakable. Furthermore, many of the dharma talks touched upon the seven foundational attitudes to mindfulness practice (acceptance, non-judgment, non-striving, beginner’s mind, patience, trust, and letting go) identified by MBSR founder Jon Kabat-Zinn, and explicitly taught in MBSR.

Retreat Life

Being on retreat is in some ways demanding (waking up at 5am, meditating for extending periods) and in some ways relaxing (no phones, internet, email, shopping, cooking, or demands on your time), but it’s above all interesting. Noticing what your mind does when the usual demands are absent is like sitting behind the window of a laboratory. I became extremely sensitive to the operations of my mind, immediately noticing each time a stray thought caused a twinge of anxiety or stab of fear; and acutely aware of the precise moment I became itchy, hungry, or otherwise physically uncomfortable. I had the space and time to observe my mental habits, noticing each time my mind latched onto one of its usual topics of rumination, or reacted to some nonverbal behaviour from a fellow retreatant. In some instances, the heightened awareness allowed me to behave more skillfully; in other instances, I observed myself repeating unhelpful patterns.

Post-Retreat Life

Now the retreat is over. I’m back in Montreal, back at work, and meeting with the usual demands and pleasures of my regular life. What’s different? First, I have retreat jet lag, which means that I’m going to bed and waking up about two hours earlier than usual. Second, I regularly stop and ask myself “How is it now?” This is a phrase Kittisaro and Thanissara encouraged us to use to check in with ourselves. Third, I’ve been speaking more slowly and less often, and listening more, realizing that everything that crosses my mind doesn’t need to be spoken out loud. Fourth, I’ve noticed that I’m more sensitive than usual to my own and others’ emotions, to the sounds in my environment and to the loveliness of nature.

I hope all of these changes last, but I’m prepared for them to fade or fluctuate. After all, if there’s any one lesson to take from Buddhist teachings, it’s the impermanence of all things.

Reflections on Difficult Times and How Mindfulness Can Help

The last 6 months have been difficult for my family and me. In fact, I can’t recall another period in my life in which I felt so overwhelmed, depleted, and discouraged. Thankfully, the worst of it has past. I’ve since had time to reflect on this period and, in particular, how my mindfulness practice helped me cope. While much of what follows is an account of my personal experience, I believe the value of the practice as it is applied here is universal.

I’ll try to get you up to speed on what happened without boring you to death with the minutiae of my “first-world” problems: My wife and I live with our 2 little kids (M, 4 years old & G, 1.5 years old) in a condo in Montreal. Last spring, we discovered a significant mould infestation in our basement. The problem was so bad that it was compromising the structural integrity of our kitchen and bathroom floors (we were lucky the floor didn’t caved in while M & G were in the bath) and poisoning the air quality in our home. Imagine: G had been breathing this toxic air since she came home from the hospital at 2 days old! The upshot was that we had to: move out; hire specialists to decontaminate the crawlspace; rip out the floors; dig up our yard to fix the water infiltration problem; and then rebuild and refinish everything. To make matters worse, we had to pursue 3 separate lawsuits if we wanted to recoup the 6-figure costs of the job.

In the middle of all of this, I got some devastating news from my mother: her cancer relapsed. It had been under control for 3 years thanks to an amazing new drug, but sadly, the disease had progressed and the drug was no longer effective. We didn’t know how much longer she had to live.

I have learned over the years that when I’m processing emotion or feeling overwhelmed, the primary symptom is irritability. I am easily frustrated by minor setbacks and impatient with people around me. What I lived over the summer was the perfect storm of triggers for me in my vulnerable state: we moved in and out of 6 different homes, supported our children through the change, managed the financial burden of all the work on our home, had countless meetings with contractors and lawyers, all while having to process this troubling news about my mother’s health.

Because we moved around a lot over the summer, it was tough to keep track of our stuff. I’d go to the bathroom to shave before work, only to realize I’d left my shaving stuff in another bag at home; my daughter wanted to sleep with her 2nd favorite stuffed animal, but that one was in storage; my wife wants to charge her iPhone, but I forgot to pack it at the other apartment. On and on like this for 3 months. And each each of these little frustrations would infuriate me. I would tighten up, growl inside, and think (over and over again) “This is so irritating! I can’t deal with all this frustration! I can’t believe I have to buy yet another iPhone charger!” As you can imagine, my head was not a fun place to be.

In one of my more acute moments of discouragement, it occurred to me that the magnitude of these challenges superseded my capacity to practice and cope with them. So I looked for inspiration from Pema Chodron, whose books had helped me through difficult times in the past. I picked up Living Comfortably with Uncertainty and Change and was reminded of one of her most compelling theses: that moments of difficulty offer the best opportunities to deepen insight and wisdom.

According to Pema, when things don’t go according to plan – when things fall apart to use her phrase – we typically react with some form of resistance such as frustration, disappointment, sadness, or indignation. We are attached to having things the way we want them and all of these reactions involve emotionally doubling-down on the plans that have not worked out.

When things don’t go according to plan, we typically react with some form of resistance such as frustration, disappointment, sadness, or indignation

Rather than tightening our grip on what has already slipped away, Pema invites us to let go and relax into the “fundamental groundlessness of being.” That phrase is fancy spiritual jargon referring to the impermanent and unsatisfying nature of reality. The fact is that my desire to have my “stuff” in order is bound to be unsatisfied because “stuff” invariably falls out of order again. iPhone chargers get lost and found; the soothing presence of stuffed animals comes and goes; apartments floors rot and get rebuilt; relationships fall apart and come together; even human life itself arises and passes. So as long as we are attached to having things a certain way, we will inevitably experience that dissatisfaction. In Buddhism, this is called dukkha.

Most of us, myself included, can’t really help it. Our brains evolved to make us feel more at ease in familiar environments that are predictable and under control. It requires more effort and energy to adapt to novel, unpredictable circumstances – and who knows what unknown threats lurk in the disorder? So adaptation to change is often accompanied by stress, anxiety, and depletion. Stretching beyond our evolutionary heritage and working skillfully with dukkha requires significant practice.

According to Pema, we can open up and ease into moments of frustration and stress. This practice begins with mindfulness. The idea is to drop into the moment-by-moment unfolding of an awareness that is not hooked or shaped by our preferences or judgements. The resistance itself can be used as an invitation to shift into openness and curiosity. In my case, that refers to the tightness in neck and shoulders, accelerating frustrated feeling, and racing thoughts about how my circumstances. Any of these elements could serve as a cue to stop and say “wow, resistance is here; let’s see what this is like.” At one level, this attitude disrupts the automatic habitual reactions of irritation and rumination and makes it possible to relate to the moment differently, such as with kindness and self-compassion. At a deeper level, it also opens the door to the experiential insight of impermanence, a deep and clear understanding that conditions change and sustainable well-being arises from a willingness to accept and work with what shows up.

We can open up and ease into moments of frustration and stress. This practice begins with mindfulness.

Of course, a lot of repetition and deliberate practice is required to move from a momentary insight to new way of being. And I have to admit I did fail to make this shift more often than I succeeded. But I do have one interesting experience to share.

One morning in the middle of the summer, I took my daughters out for a walk so my wife could catch up on sleep. The weather was lousy, but it hadn’t started raining yet and the kids needed to get out. So we went and had a reasonably good time. On the way back, the whining started: “I’m huuunnngry. I’m tiiiiirred. I don’t want to walk anymore, etc.” Shorty after that, it started pouring rain (obviously) and the whining escalated to crying.  Somehow, despite headache, fatigue, and own wet clothes, I managed to not react. I didn’t say or do anything except observe the moment unfolding. To be clear, this wasn’t an act of suppression or self-deception; there were simply no other “strategies” available to me aside from letting go of my preferences and working with what was present. After a minute or 2, the kids calmed down and walked along quietly. Then, the rain actually let up. And as we approached our home, I noticed a feeling of peaceful gratitude set in as the beauty of my surroundings registered, as well as a sense that everything was going to be ok.

For a brief moment I was attuned to the “fundamental groundlessness of being.” And as hard and complicated as that sounds, it actually involved little effort or technique – just slowing down and tuning in. So here is your invitation to try relaxing into those moments (big or small) when you’re feeling stuck in reactivity. It may help bring back intentionality and a deeper appreciation of impermanence.

Photo by Michael Dam on Unsplash

 

Montreal Brain Imaging Study Shows Reduced Reactivity with Mindfulness

Mindfulness largely refers to a state of awareness characterized by a particular attitude of acceptance and non-judgement towards ‘events’ occurring in the realm of our attention.

These events may constitute thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, emotions, recursive thinking patterns, etc. The challenge in cultivating mindfulness lies in acknowledging these thoughts/feelings/sensations/perceptions, instead of reacting to them in habit-formed ways. Therefore, mindfulness allows us to adopt a more detached perspective on our experiences, promoting greater objectivity in selecting responses and behavior.

Mindfulness is cultivated through the practice of meditation, and has its roots in ancient Eastern traditions. Research has shown that mindfulness reduces the extent to which we react to emotional events, which is reflected not only in the way we perceive these events but in the way our body physically responds to them.

This may potentially explain why mindfulness is beneficial when introduced in treatments targeting depression and anxiety. The way in which the effects of mindfulness on emotional events are reflected in brain function, however, is not clearly established.

Therefore, our research group at Université de Montréal (laboratory of Dr Mario Beauregard) conducted a study examining brain function changes underlying a mindfulness state of awareness while processing emotionally charged pictures.

To do this, we examined a group of individuals having practiced meditation for more than 1000 hours, and another comparison group with no prior experience in meditation (but which was trained for one week before the experiment). The participants viewed pictures depicting negative emotional (eg.: war scenes), positive emotional (eg.: a grandfather smiling and hugging his grandchild) and neutral content (eg.: a common object, such as a lamp). At the same time, their brain activity was recorded inside an MRI scanner. Each group viewed these pictures in a state of mindfulness, as well as in a regular (non-mindful) state of awareness.

Essentially, both experienced meditators and non-meditators reported that they felt less emotionally aroused from the pictures when viewing them in a mindful state of awareness than when they were not in a mindful state.

Also, brain function recorded from the long-term practitioners in comparison to the non-meditators revealed the following results. While viewing the emotional pictures in a mindful state of awareness did not reduce activity in a relatively ‘primitive’ fear and arousal-related brain structure, i.e. the amygdala, mindfulness was related to reduced activity in thought-related brain areas, i.e. within the prefrontal cortex.

This potentially indicates that, with long-term meditation experience, the mechanism through which mindfulness attenuates arousal to emotional events is not attained through the initial primitive reaction, but through the secondary thoughts and judgements triggered by arousing events.

This interpretation however, needs to be validated with behavioral tasks specifically assessing mindfulness and thought-related elaboration towards emotional events.

In a second report, we also observed differences between our group of long-term meditators and non-meditators in the way their brain activity was organised during a state of rest, i.e. when participants were not engaged in a specific task. Thus, this may indicate that meditation is related to brain organisation changes which extend beyond a meditative state of awareness per se.

It is important to point out, however, that cause and event conclusions cannot be derived from the results of these studies, and that further research projects examining a group of participants before and after having acquired mindfulness experience are needed to support our findings.

Nonetheless, our studies shed light onto the brain mechanisms operating when individuals experience emotional content in a mindful way. As researchers and scientists persist in studying and uncovering these processes, we will gain a better understanding of the impact that emotional experiences and meditation have on our psyche, our body, and our brain.

Finally, with a better understanding of these processes, mindfulness can be more efficiently implemented into treatment options for disorders related to stress and emotional lability.

How To Get the Most Out of Your Psychedelic Experience

by Reid Robison, MD MBA

It’s now well-established that set and setting are some of the most important factors in the psychedelic experience. ‘Set’ refers to one's mindset, and ‘setting’ refers to the physical or social environment in which the experience takes place.

The history of set and setting

The term ‘set and setting’ formally entered the psychedelic lexicon on September 9th, 1961 when Harvard researcher Timothy Leary presented a paper on the topic at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. Leary posited that set and setting is the most important determinant of the contents of psychedelic experiences.

In his psychedelic research throughout the 1960’s, Leary often spoke and wrote about how the mental state and physical environment of study participants influenced the outcomes. In 1966, Timothy Leary conducted a series of experiments with dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in a controlled set and setting. The aim was to see whether DMT, which researchers assumed was a terror-inducing drug, could produce pleasant experiences under a supportive set and setting. It was found that it could.

The idea of set and setting, however, has been around for much longer than 1966. Centuries before psychedelic research began, the cultural importance of set and setting was established through ritualistic psychedelic use. Shamans from Indigenous tribes in the Amazon guided the set and setting of ayahuasca ceremonies by drumming, singing, and blowing tobacco smoke. These rituals established an attitude of sacredness, acknowledging that the ceremony itself is as important as the effects induced by the plant medicine.

In the eastern hemisphere, similar ceremonies existed with the Soma drinks of ancient Hindu rituals. Though we have limited knowledge about the contents of the drink, ancient texts explain that these rituals involved multiple sacred fireplaces and priests reciting long sequences of mantras and hymns from their texts.

After observing  the Indigenous mushroom ceremonies in Mexico, Al Hubbard (the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”) adopted the use of set and setting in his psychedelic research trials. When he returned home, Hubbard created a “treatment space decorated to feel more like a home than a hospital.” Hubbard helped other researchers to move away from emphasis on the drug alone.

Set

When psychedelic medicine opens the door to the unconscious, vast spectrums of possibilities emerge. How one steers through the journey depends, in large part, on our set, or the contents of our personal unconscious.

If you have strong walls of conditioning, this may influence how freely you can move through the various vistas of the journey. Similarly, your values, attitudes, hopes and dreams will influence the direction of your attention and play into how you deal with all that subconscious material you encounter.

It’s also important to assess the state of your nervous system while going into the experience. Often, psychedelics function as amplifiers of our subconscious material and mental processes.

Setting

Setting includes physical components like the space you’re in or the music playing in the background. It also includes social factors, such as the people around, or cultural influences which aren’t necessarily visible.

A setting that is calming, natural and inspiring can help point your journey in a direction of positive transformation, just like a grounded, compassionate, and fully present guide can provide a stable energy field that helps you feel centered and safe.

Long-lasting changes

Psychedelics, while not for everyone, can be powerful therapy accelerators and “way-showers.” In other words, they can help us see past those heavy walls of conditioning, the ego defenses, the past wounds, and the illusion of separation that keeps our surface mind from the core of our being and our real Self.

While psychedelics show the way forward, old habits and traits can rapidly snap back into place unless one is committed to doing the work. There is a grace period following profound psychedelic experiences—a window of neuroplasticity that opens and allows changes to happen more easily.

Integration is the process of digesting that change and manifesting its fullest expression. To quote Jack Kornfield, “after the ecstasy, the laundry.”

Anyone who has backpacked around the world or done extensive traveling knows that returning home can be a shock to the system. It can take months for you to adjust to being “back home.” You’ve had all these incredible experiences in that time and it changed you, but the life, the people, and the circumstances you’re returning to appear to be basically the same. They’ve been simply living out their regular lives. It takes time to adjust the “new you” to your life and your life to the “new you.”

It's similar with psychedelic experiences. You’ve gone on a consciousness world-tour or experienced eternity in a night, and now you’re expected to go back to the office on Monday and make small talk with co-workers? This can be very jarring to the psyche and sometimes results in quite a bit of emotional turbulence. Making your integration process a priority is key to integrating the wisdom, insights, and experience in a more conscious and intentional manner. It’s like bringing back seeds from a voyage to the jungle. Now we need to plant, nourish, and care for them.

If you make no effort afterwards to change undesirable patterns, habits of the past tend to reassert themselves and you might find yourself sliding back into your old self. In fact, it can even at times feel worse than before. After you’ve seen the way things can be better, you might feel disappointed to stumble around again in the same old muck.

All that said, when used responsibly and with good intention, skill, integrity and support, psychedelics have the potential to contribute in a major way to easing the pain and suffering in the world by giving us access to more wisdom, compassion, and spiritual development.

About the author

Reid Robison, MDA MBA is the Chief Medical Officer at Novamind. He is a board-certified psychiatrist who was named Best Psychiatrist in Utah by Salt Lake City Weekly’s Best of Utah Body & Mind 2020.

Dr. Robison is the co-founder of Cedar Psychiatry and serves as the Medical Director for the Center for Change, a leading Eating Disorder center. He was previously a coordinating investigator for the MAPS-sponsored MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study of eating disorders.

Managing Anxiety in Troubled Times

This has been a unique and challenging time for our patients, our community, and the world. But along with challenge comes the opportunity for growth. Over the next several weeks we will be periodically posting ideas for maintaining or improving mental health during this time of social distancing and increased anxiety. Covid-19 has presented us with several unique challenges all at once. These range from fear of ourselves or loved ones contracting the illness, to job insecurity, relationship stress and many others. One helpful technique that you can try today is thought labeling.

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Thought labeling has been used for thousands of years for meditation practice but can be used for more mindful daily living as well. The problem with anxiety is that it is your minds way of telling you that something needs to change or be done. That’s not always a problem, especially if it is a problem that you can take some time and work it through to a solution. The issue arises when now is not the time to solve this problem. So, when an anxious thought comes into your mind ask yourself is this a problem I can solve? If yes, then ask, is now the time to solve this? If yes, then do so. Pull up a chair and a notepad, write it all down and work out some possible solutions. If the answer is no to either of the previous questions, then it’s time to let it go.

Our brains are funny things. They like everything to make sense and each idea or mental object to have its proper place in the filing cabinet of our mind’s storeroom. Anxiety is worse when a problem or idea doesn’t have a neat place designated in that storeroom, but we can create a mental box to place it in. This is where thought labeling really works and here is what you do. When you notice a thought that is anxiety producing and you have answered no to the questions “can I solve this” or “is now the time to solve this”, you label that thought with a word. Any word will do. This is your box. I like the labels of “Past” for thoughts that come from the past or “Future” for anxieties about the future. You can also use “Useful”, “Not Useful”, or “Fear”, “Judgment”, but really anything can work.

Once the thought has been labeled you will find that it’s much easier to move past it and get on with things that you find more helpful, fulfilling, or meaningful. This is a practice and you are strengthening your mindfulness muscles. The thoughts may return but when they do be kind to yourself; just label them again and put them back on the mental shelf. Try this first with low or medium intensity anxieties and then move on to the more difficult ones. Doing this each day will bring you one step closer to a more peaceful and “in the moment” existence where you can give your full attention to what matters most.

Be kind to each other and remember, be kind to yourself.

Sincerely,

Landon Moyers, DNP

Maybe Today Is a Day for Compassion

By Landon Moyers DNP, PMHNP-BC

Depression and anxiety are prevalent in our modern culture. Anxiety and fear have been driving much of the depression and exhaustion that we are seeing right now. Currently many of us fear for our health or the health of a loved one, or fear for our family’s financial security. This fear based self-focus is the perfect storm for depression. The shortcomings of others and ourselves are brought into sharper focus, something research has shown for decades worsens depression and a sense of isolation.

Compassion for others and for ourselves is the antithesis of depression and isolation. Luckily, we are hardwired for compassion. In fact, most mammals are. Even mice show compassion for each other and will heal more quickly from physical injury when they are the recipient.

The Dalai Lama once said “A compassionate concern for others is the source of happiness”, and the Buddha is paraphrased as having said “what is that one thing, which when you possess, you have all other virtues? It is compassion”.

What is compassion? In the book A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, Thupten Jinpa, says, “Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”

When we show compassion for others, we experience an aspect of joy that the psychologist and writer Paul Eckman calls “moral elevation.” It takes place when we act compassionately towards ourselves and others, or even witness compassion. It triggers a release in oxytocin and endorphins in the brain that are almost unmatched in their ability to stimulate joy and a sense of wellbeing. Even more rewarding is that it triggers compassion in the recipient as well that usually resonates two to three degrees of separation creating well being in your extended social group. Remember compassion is feeling for another along with the motivation/action to alleviate suffering. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, he says that to be compassionate we don’t get under the rock that we see crushing another, we act to help remove the rock.

What are the rocks that you see in others’ lives? Are there ways you can help in a healthy way? If you can’t help fix it, can you hold a safe space for them, give them encouragement? What are the rocks that you place on yourself through negative self-talk or self-blame? Would you tolerate those same things being said if they were coming from another person? What advice would you give a friend if you knew they were telling themselves the same things?

Let us not neglect our needs for self-compassion out of fear or the drive to be more, get more, do more, or do better. Sometimes it’s about recognizing you are enough, you are lovable, you are worthwhile. We may have things we want to improve and that can be positive but only when we start from a place of recognition that we are enough, we are lovable, and we are worthwhile.

Try using compassion today, you might be surprised by how it impacts you and how far it spreads.

If you are interested in compassion and how it can impact your life take a look at The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World and A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives. 

Social Isolation Impatience Syndrome

By Bob Mcnutt, LCSW

The last year and a half of social isolation seems to have some unexpected impacts on our patience and distress tolerance. This seems somewhat paradoxical since we have all practiced being bored and lonely since 2020, which seems like it could increase our tolerance for discomfort. Instead, it seems that the decreased stimulus is causing many to retreat into physical and emotional caves of comfort, making it difficult to integrate back into normal life.  The following is a list of common issues caused by the changes of the COVID era and what you can do about them.

1) We all have different expectations regarding protections and connections, we want everyone to comply with our personal style of health protections in interactions.  Seeing someone near you practice alternate styles of protections in interactions can create some severe judgements towards the other.

2) Isolation in person and connection through social media seems to have further engrained people’s held biases.

3) We are not used to other people getting in our way as much. Roads were emptier, food was delivery or pickup at restaurants and stores, more online shopping, and less overall interactions with people who slow us down by being in front of us in line.

4) We have less interactions with casual teasing banter and are now more prone to offense.

5) The favorite or easiest coping/avoidant behavior has been too accessible at home and we haven’t needed to accept and push through distress as much.

6) Feedback from work has not been face to face for many of us, we become more sensitive to light criticism when we cannot see the response from the other person. We get more fearful of negative responses in person.

7) Fearmongering on all sides of media, the news cycle is not friends with contentment. When media is constantly stimulating fear and anger responses, our ability to manage small distresses lowers.

What to do about it:

1)  Focus on your own version of health protection in interactions. If you feel unsafe because of other people, how can you feel safer without completely isolating in your home. If you feel frustrated by restrictions on behaviors or protective behaviors of others, try to empathize with the fear or vulnerability that they may be experiencing. I do not recommend trying to change the behavior of a stranger.

2) Expand your in-person or online sources of interactions, reduce your impersonal sources of information. In person interactions allow for greater levels of connection, empathy and differing perspectives. Before you block someone online, ask what can be learned from this interaction first. Be cautious on quickly labeling others as trolls, try to understand perspective and intent before reacting.

3) NEVER BE IN A RUSH TO SIT ON THE COUCH. If I am impatient in traffic or at the store, what am I telling myself is so crucially important to get home to.  Live in the moment when possible. Standing in line and sitting in traffic is far from torture when we connect with the moment non-judgementally.

4) Watch for intent first and be quick to forgive unintended offenses, when in doubt- assume the best. Try laughing/playing along.

5) Listen to your body and acknowledge the physical symptoms of your emotion. With each symptom, we can enhance the discomfort of these by worrying about them or lower the discomfort by accepting them. If symptoms are isolated and examined with curiosity they can be objectively labeled to dilute the intensity (rather than saying “I am anxious”, state “I am having the following symptoms of anxiety _____”). Look into expanding your coping skills by doing some light research into popular coping mechanisms.

6) Nobody is perfect for more than 1/8th of a second at a time. You will make mistakes. You will disappoint others. You will cause disruption in others’ lives. You must accept this reality if you wish to interact with the world around you.  Separate failures from character (Unhealthy: I’m a failure! Healthy: Welp, I failed on that attempt, I’ll try again/learn from my mistake). Look for intent behind negative feedback: seldom is the intent “stop trying and leave me alone forever.”  - most intents in negative feedback are: “I noticed this issue, try to resolve it and learn from this.”

7) Ask what you actually achieve/learn/grow from social media and news outlets. Look at the intent behind the social media and news outlets (They want your money or personal information to sell).

Bonus: Desensitize yourself to minor discomforts: start or end you shower with cold water for 15 seconds; be bored without filling the space with phone tapping or TV; keep the air conditioner at 74 instead of 72; exercise. Bonus feature of this is a slightly lower energy bill each month.

Bob McNutt

About the author

Bob McNutt, LCSW specializes in substance use, behavioral issues, depression, trauma, and PTSD. In his practice, Bob addresses the social and spiritual concerns of his clients, helping them to restructure negative cyclical thoughts.

Bob McNutt earned his bachelor’s of behavioral science from Utah Valley University and his master’s of social work from the University of Utah.

The Healing Power of Gratitude

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Humans are good at feeling bad. It’s called the “negativity bias” and we are hardwired for it. We remember negative experiences better than positive ones. We recall insults better than praise. We react more strongly to negative stimuli than we do to positive stimuli.

This bias affects us all to varying degrees. For some, it leads to mild discouragement. For others, it’s a symptom of a serious mental illness like depression or anxiety.

Regardless of how this feature of human consciousness wears you down, gratitude can help build you back up.

Psychological research shows that people who deliberately and consistently focus on what they are thankful for tend to be happier and more satisfied with life. Practicing gratitude can boost other positive emotions, too, like optimism, pleasure, hope, and enthusiasm.

Gratitude can also improve our physical health. Researchers have shown that gratitude reduces stress, strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, improves sleep quality, and increases pain tolerance.

Gratitude heals social wounds as well. When we express gratitude to others, we are more likely to forgive, less likely to feel prejudice, and more willing to purge poisonous attitudes like envy, jealousy, and greed.

To appreciate the healing power of gratitude, however, it’s important to understand what gratitude is not. Gratitude is not starry-eyed, naive optimism. It is not pretending your problems don’t exist. You can be a realist and still practice gratitude. In fact, gratitude works best as a healing force when it is felt in an authentic, honest way.

So how does one practice gratitude? Here are some practical tips:

Keep a Daily Gratitude Journal 

Simply write down 3 things every day that you are thankful for. These could be things that happened that day (e.g., I’m thankful that my boss complimented my work today) or more general things about your life (e.g., I’m thankful that I have indoor plumbing).

Express Gratitude to Someone You Care About 

Reaching out via email, text message, phone call, or face-to-face, is a small gesture that not only strengthens your bond with that person, but also improves your mood.

Imagine What Life Could be Like Without the Things You Take for Granted

This is especially effective when you’re stuck in a negativity bias feedback loop and don’t think you have anything to be thankful for. Most humans are better off today than they would have been a few hundred years ago. Start mentally subtracting your modern conveniences from your life and you’ll quickly realize how good you have it.

Focus On and Savor Something You Enjoy 

Spend time really looking at the beauty around you. Take a bite of some good food and pay attention to how much you enjoy it before swallowing. Allow your favorite song to completely capture your attention. All these things you enjoy are gifts. Spend time with them and let your appreciation for them fill up every corner of your awareness.

Whether you’re depressed, anxious, afraid, grieving, annoyed, angry, or bored, gratitude can help you heal.

Values Inventory

There are times in our lives that things feel like they are going well and we feel content. Then there are the times when the opposite are the reality. Many people are having a difficult time right now because we have lost access to many of the things we do, the places we go and the people we normally spend time with. These are the “whats” of our lives. Many of us spend a great deal of time on the “whats” without periodically reexamining them to see if they match the “whys”. The “whys” of our lives are rooted in our core values.

We have the unique opportunity now that many of the “whats” are on hold to reestablish the whys and realign them. Make a list of your core values. If you find this hard imagine the personal characteristics that people compliment you on, or the ones you wish others would. Alternately try the things you seem to notice in others when they are doing well. Common ones are kindness, warmth, honesty, tenacity, love of learning, loyalty, humor, altruism, etc.  Pick a few and rank them in order of importance. Next rate how well you are doing in each. Pick your top one and make it your focus for the week. Try to live your day in alignment with that value. Next week pick a different one.

Research shows that interesting things start happening, namely contentment and joy come more easily and stick around longer. Notice how you feel when your new “whats” start aligning with the whys.

Landon Moyers DNP, PMHNP-BC